Imagination is funny

I came across this really interesting article in the Times Higher Education (THE). I really went to see the owl wearing glasses but then stopped to read. I agree with parts of it and disagree with others, surely there is an alternative?

Yes, I agree with John S. Wilkins that universities have strayed from their initial purpose and I am very sorry that there is very little “wisdom” in our universities any more. Students and lecturers are very focused on the final outcome – the degree qualification – this is not necessarily bad. At the very least students learn how to concentrate, learn how to read a book or journal and extract the information they need. That’s more than most of them can do when they arrive. I would love to see our students learning philosophy, english and history as part of their degrees but there is not the time. Teaching students how to do something and why they have to do it that particular way is the best we can hope for. Equipping them with some ability to make informed judgements when they are caught in novel situations is our highest aim (for undergraduates).

Some of the problems arise simply because there are so many students in HE these days. We no longer have our own rooms that we teach in and every room in the university is booked for particular times. There is no possibility to carry on an interesting conversation because we have to vacate the room in time for the next class. As a result, by the time students graduate they do, “emerge, blinking at the realization that it qualifies you to do exactly nothing” (Chris Moore). I do believe though that with modern technologies we can start to reverse this situation.

We now have a much better understanding of how Open Educational Resources can be used. People who are considering coming to university can use the OER to acquire basic knowledge and skills they will need when they come to university. Part of that basic knowledge and skills should be philosophy, language and history related to the particular discipline(s) they are interested in. This is what lifelong learning is about. It’s not just about learning when you retire, it’s about learning all through your life, even between the intensive bits of learning in institutions.

Virtual Worlds and Virtual Reality are now available to us for helping students to learn how to deal with the difficult situations, the death, the haemorrhage, etc and through the immersive experience learn how to understand and cope with how they feel and how they react in these situations. We can support our students when they are faced with a dreadful philosophical conundrum because we are there with them in the virtual experience.

Online f2f tutorials provide an opportunity to carry on the interesting discussions that would normally have occurred in the tutorial room or the lecture hall. Now we can even take our cameras outside and talk to our class-mates – we can create a sort of virtual field trip, etc, etc. The only limit is your imagination.

Please everyone start using your imagination!

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2 responses to “Imagination is funny

  1. It’s really hard to disagree with any of the ideas presented here, but overall I find myself unconvinced. And it’s taken me a while to work out why.

    I think that, at least in part, we’ve moved as an entire culture to a concept of SMART targets, and if you’ll forgive the pun, being smart doesn’t equate to being wise. We don’t really, at any level below a PhD, provide time for ideas to be mulled over, connected, put in context and all those other things. In fairness, we do try to – we move from deliberately shallow learning with younger children, into deeper learning, with notable changes at 16 and 18 to support that. However, even in the final year of a degree, the majority of the learning is delimited by term-long courses with good SMART targets for learning outcomes. (YMMV, but is there much other than the project that is longer than 1 term or semester if you’re organised that way?)

    My undergraduate degree had a course (that the department had to fight the faculty for every year) called Integrative Assignment. I think in all three years it was a wide-ranging literature review type of exercise, deliberately designed to pull together topics and threads from disparate modules. I find myself wondering how well it worked but, at the same time, thinking it was a step the right way and something that more courses should encourage. It still had issues about being term-long and so forth, but it did lead to thought, cross-linking of ideas and the like. It might not teach wisdom, but it’s a good start to thinking in a wider sense.

    But, going even wider than that, there is an understandable emphasis on teaching core skills. Literacy, numeracy, IT skills and the like. We gradually add specific skills to that – what I learnt doing a BioMedical Sciences degree probably overlapped with a nursing course, but there was still, inevitably and rightly, different material too.

    I find it really telling that we don’t explicitly make any effort to teach people how to learn. How is that not a vital skill for adults and children in this world? Why do we leave it to chance and occult learning? I find myself wondering if we taught people how to learn alongside all their formal education, maybe one class/lecture a week for the first term or perhaps year in each new establishment/qualification level, just how different our world would be.

    Would it, for example, reduce the proportion of those who struggle with literacy and numeracy? Would it ease that transition from GCSE learning (largely fact based) into AS/A2 level learning (starting to analyse and discuss) and on into degree level (where we start to add synthesising new ideas and wider research skills too)? Would such a small change mean we don’t spend money supporting targets for lifelong learning that seem increasingly like empty words, because we would have a population that by and large is empowered to learn new skills, seek training when required and so forth?

    It might be a rosy vision of the impact of a small change, but I wonder just how much it would affect your desired outcomes as well as a wider range of them.

  2. timjohnson

    Thanks Eloise, sorry to take so long replying, I had a really busy weekend.

    I too would like to provide this type of course for students – in fact some colleagues and I have worked on this sort of thing. So I can’t help but agree with you about teaching people how to learn, it is something that is really difficult to learn on your own.

    If only the, “powers that be” agreed with us 🙂

    The only way I can see of achieving the desired outcome is by using technology more. I know the learning opportunity technology offers won’t reach those who really need it. I just hope that those who do learn from the opportunity are removed from the, presently, high numbers of those we have to deal with, from first year to third, when they come to university.

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